Credit: Lawrence Lustig

John Wharton

The old saying goes that an Englishman’s home is his castle. However, anyone who is a fan of history, or has even watched Game of Thrones, knows a castle can be stormed or breached. Sometimes, home comforts can become home invasion and life can be upturned.

Tonight, Tony Bellew aims to become WBC Cruiserweight champion when he faces Ilunga Makabu for the vacant strap. The Scouse fighter will enter the ring to the strains of Z-Cars at Goodison Park, the home of his beloved Everton FC, and he will be keen to ensure his dream doesn’t turn into a nightmare.

With boxing being boxing, cautionary tales are littered around almost everywhere, so we delve into British boxing history to see what lessons the Liverpool man could learn.

Alan Minter was a popular British Middleweight and had previously held the British and European crowns at the weight. In March 1980, the Crawley man was handed a shot at WBC and WBA 160-pound champion Vito Antuofermo, at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. After fifteen hard rounds, the Brit was awarded a close split decision. The closeness of the fight precipitated a rematch that was held just over three months later, at the Empire Pool in London. This time, Minter had a much easier time with the Italian-born American and after eight rounds the bout was stopped, with Antuofermo on his stool because of severe cuts to his eyes.

Unfortunately for Minter, his next defence of the crown, this time at Wembley Arena, would be against one of the most avoided and feared men in the division. Marvin Hagler entered the ring with a record of 49 wins, two draws and two losses, and just a year before had been unlucky to be on the end of a draw against former champ Antuofermo.

Minter entered the ring as a slight favourite but the bout was already tinged with nastiness, as the champion was reported to have been offended by Hagler snubbing his handshake upon being introduced the year before. The malice took a more sinister turn, as the British fighter was reported to have said he would not allow a black man to take his title.

The fight itself was one that would be remembered for all the wrong reasons. Three rounds of boxing saw Minter’s face slashed to ribbons and the bout was stopped just after the halfway point of the third stanza. The champion and his corner had no complaints but the home crowd had less reservation about showing their displeasure, as bottles rained down on the ring area after referee Carlos Berrocal had stopped the bout.

It was a night of shame for British boxing. The BBBoC promised an inquiry and Sports and Culture Minister Hector Monro denounced the sport as a ‘disgrace’. Promoter Mickey Duff apologised to Hagler and Sports Illustrated laid the blame at Minter’s feet for his earlier comments.

In the 1980’s, there was no more popular British boxer than Frank Bruno. His outgoing personality and infectious laugh led the British population to fall in love with him and they stood by him through his trials and tribulations.
In July 1986, Bruno was preparing for his first world title shot against Philadelphian champion Tim Witherspoon.

Bruno had been unbeaten in two years since his defeat against James ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith and was hoping to take the belt from the Pennsylvania man.

The bout began at one in the morning, to cater for the American market, and was forgettable until round eleven. Bruno landed a right hand. Witherspoon absorbed it and came back with a right hand that wobbled and stiffened the challenger. The Philadelphia man seized his chance, as the Brit tried to hold on but the champion landed right hand after right hand until the Londoner collapsed in the corner. His trainer threw the towel in, forcing Isidro Perez to wave the bout off.

Bruno would challenge unsuccessfully for the title on two more occasions before, eventually, in 1995, he deposed WBC champion Oliver McCall to take home the green and gold belt.

Unfortunately, his reign as champion would be short-lived and he lost his crown to old foe Mike Tyson just six months later.

Lennox Lewis had won the gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, fighting for his adopted Canada. Four and a half years later, he was handed the WBC Heavyweight title after champion Riddick Bowe deposited the belt in a bin and refused to face the British-Canadian man. Lewis made three successful defences of the crown, defeating Tony Tucker, Frank Bruno and Phil Jackson.
In September 1994, Lewis made his first defence in London when he faced Oliver McCall in what was expected to be a routine defence before he fought Riddick Bowe in a heavyweight mega-fight.

McCall entered the ring with a less than impressive 24-5 record and most of his victories had come over journeyman and fringe contenders. His five defeats had come at the hands of fighters like Tony Tucker, Orlin Norris and Buster Douglas.
The first round was a non-event, as the two fighters felt each other out. Lewis came out for the second session looking a bit more aggressive and tried to land a lazy right hand that allowed McCall to land with a counter right of his own. The champion went down heavy and managed to rise at the count of six but was on wobbly legs. Referee Jose Guadeloupe Garcia continued counting but Lewis’ knees dipped and he waved the fight off.

The super fight with Bowe was off and even though Lewis eventually won his title back in 1997, as he gained revenge over McCall in bizarre fashion, the fight with his old Olympic foe never materialised. Lewis went on to unify the titles but did manage to lose in another upset a few years later at the hands of Hasim Rahman. McCall was still fighting as recently as 2014 and the only stoppage on his record was the bizarre rematch loss against the British champion.

Kevin Mitchell’s dream night at Upton Park is a cautionary tale for Bellew. The popular Dagenham man was challenging Australian hard man Michael Katsidis for his interim WBO crown in front of 15,000 raucous cockneys. Punk band Cockney Rejects sang a boisterous version of West Ham United’s anthem Forever’ Blowing Bubbles as Mitchell made his way to the ring, following in the footsteps of his Hammer’s heroes.

Katsidis entered the ring wearing his famous gladiator mask and as the two faced off, the Australian champion looked the bigger man and also less fazed by the atmosphere. In a tense first round, Mitchell was stunned by the Aussie’s power and spent the round back-pedalling. The second was more comfortable for the Essex man and he landed several combinations as he took the round.

The nightmare began early in the third. A left hook to the temple sent him tottering backwards and trying desperately to hold on. The challenger tried gamely to fight back but Katsidis couldn’t miss with that left hand. Mitchell was punching back but his punches had no snap and his legs looked as if if they had been in encased in concrete. Katsidis continued to stalk his foe and with a minute left, another left hook exploded off the Essex man’s head. He again wobbled, and this time, Katsidis wasn’t to be denied. Two more shots had landed before referee Dave Parris stepped in to save Mitchell from further punishment.

Tony Bellew has a chance to ingrain his name into Liverpool boxing folklore and make himself a player in a vibrant and exciting Cruiserweight division, but, he must heed the lessons of the past and ensure that his Goodison dream doesn’t become a nightmare.

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